Stem Cell Transplant (Bone Marrow Transplant) for Blood Cancers

What Is a Stem Cell Transplant?

Stem cell transplant — also called bone marrow transplant — can be effective in treating advanced or recurrent blood cancers, like leukemia and lymphoma.

Stem cells are immature blood cells in the blood or bone marrow.

When a person with blood cancer receives healthy stem cells from a donor, they will make new, healthy blood cells. But — because the cells are from a donor — there's a risk of rejection.

UPMC CancerCenter takes part in the International Bone Marrow Registry and the Autologous Blood and Marrow Transplant Registry. This provides you with the greatest chance to find a donor match.

Why Choose UPMC for a Stem Cell Transplant?

The Stem Cell Transplantation Program of UPMC CancerCenter is part of the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers.

The Lemieux Center is the only place within the UPMC CancerCenter network where we perform stem cell transplants.

As one of the largest providers of stem cell transplant services in western Pennsylvania, our accredited program:

Our leaders work closely with experts in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Program of UPMC CancerCenter, doing about 130 transplants each year.

Types of Stem Cell Transplant for Blood Cancer

The types of stem cell transplants we offer include:

  • Allogeneic transplant — doctors collect and transplant stem cells from a donor who matches the recipients' cells.
  • Autologous transplant — your care team harvests stem cells before other cancer treatments. Your doctor then transplants the stem cells, purged of abnormal cells, back into your body.
  • Cord blood
  • Syngeneic transplant — this is like an allogeneic transplant except that we collect the donor cells from your identical twin.

Allogeneic stem cell transplants

Allogeneic stem cell transplants can potentially cure a range of cancerous and noncancerous blood disorders.

For the best overall results, the donor's blood must have a protein — called human leukocyte antigen (HLA) — that matches yours. The immune system uses HLA to tell the difference between your cells and the donor’s cells.

Testing helps to identify closely matched HLA types to reduce the risk of rejection.

If the match isn't close enough, the transplanted immune system — from the donor — will perceive your cells as foreign.

Your new immune system will mount an attack on your tissues. Doctors call this graft-versus-host disease.

If we can't find a perfect HLA cell match, a minimally mismatched or haploidentical donor can often provide a 50 percent match.

Doctors refer to this as a haploidentical allogenic stem cell transplant.

Because every person shares one HLA haplotype with each parent or child — and half a haplotype with his or her siblings — we can quickly find an eligible HLA-haploidentical in nearly all cases.

Autologous stem cell transplants

Autologous stem cell transplants tend to cause fewer side effects and complications than allogeneic transplants because they use your own cells.

But, separating the normal stem cells from the cancer cells presents an added challenge.

Doctors can treat your cells in a lab to purge them of cancer cells. But, there's still a risk of returning some cancer cells during the transplant.

Stem Cell Transplant Process

UPMC has a long and successful history of tissue, organ, and blood transplantation. For decades, we’ve pioneered leading-edge techniques to overcome the challenges of making the most of the donated tissues at hand.

Our experts at UPMC CancerCenter are leaders in the use of stem cell transplantation for treating blood cancers.

From your first consult to testing, infusion, and follow-up, the stem cell transplant process is complex.

Your blood cancer care team — including stem cell transplant surgeons — will work together to guide you through it. And, your stem cell transplant coordinator will make sure we answer all of your questions.

Before your transplant, the stem cell transplant team will carefully assess you to find out your specific needs.

For some types of blood cancer, people must have high doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy before their stem cell transplant. This will kill the current bone marrow that's making the cancer cells.

After you complete the chemo or radiation pretreatment, your doctor will infuse you with the healthy stem cells.  

Over time — about two to four weeks — the stem cells will restore your body's blood cells.

To protect your health while the transplanted stem cells are growing, you might receive:

  • Antibiotics and other drugs
  • Platelets
  • Blood products

Follow-up care varies based on the type of stem cell transplant you have.

Your care team will give you details and help schedule follow-up appointments.

Side Effects of Stem Cell Transplantation

Every treatment approach to cancer can cause side effects.

For stem cell transplants, side effects can include:

  • Bleeding
  • Fatigue
  • Graft-versus-host disease
  • Hair loss
  • Infection
  • Loss of appetite
  • Low blood counts
  • Mouth and throat pain
  • Nausea
  • Organ damage

Your specialized stem cell transplant team will take every precaution to increase the chance of a positive result.

We'll also work to help you cope with any of these symptoms.

Contact Us About Stem Cell Transplant for Blood Cancer

Contact UPMC CancerCenter about blood cancer treatment by calling 412-647-2811.

To reach the Mario Lemieux Center for Blood Cancers at UPMC CancerCenter, call 412-864-6600.